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Kevin Barry on Why He Decided to Write a Western

Posted on 5th June 2024 by Anna Orhanen

Set in the Montana of 1891 among Irish migrant workers, the new novel from the award-winning author of Night Boat to Tangier finds two runaway lovers  – Tom, a degenerate young balladeer, and Polly, wife of a powerful mine captain – on a wild journey across the badlands of Montana. In this exclusive piece, Kevin Barry talks about his lifelong fascination with Westerns and how The Heart in the Winter was born.  

One evening in late October of 1999, I sat in a room at the Capri Motel in Butte, Montana, cracked my knuckles, opened my notebook, and attempted to begin my Western. It was clearly just the place to begin writing such a novel. From my room, I could see out over the ruins of the copper mining pits, their ghostly old gallows frames rising elegantly still against the Rocky Mountain dusk-light. I knew that a little more than a century before, a community of some ten thousand Irish migrants had established itself here, working the mines by the day and night shifts, and marking time in the bars and the brothels and the opium parlours, too. I had begun researching the novel back in West Cork in Ireland, where the migration began, and I knew that what I had on my hands was a Western with County Cork accents – I had a way in, and I felt like the luckiest young writer in the world. 

But my Western never took. I had great material, great texture, great atmosphere, but the novel lacked compelling characters – I didn’t have the people yet. Also, it felt like I had too much material; I didn’t know how to reduce it down, how to compress my research in the edit and force from the text the sense of true, lived life. And so my great Butte, Montana Western was quietly pushed to one side. 

I had been a likely candidate to at least attempt a Western. As a small child in the Ireland of the 1970s, we had access to just one TV channel, RTE, which filled much of its afternoon and weekend schedule with re-runs of old (and sometimes ancient) Westerns. I reckon by the age of three I was watching four or five of the things a week – all I needed to hear was the clip-clippety-clop of horse hooves across the screen and I’d go crawling madly across the rug towards our black-and-white set.

In the 1980s, as a teenager, I was enamoured of the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and I collected VHS tapes of Sam Peckinpah’s ultra-violent take on the genre and quickly, from there, I became something of a wannabe cineaste, joining the local film society in Limerick. It was then I discovered the great revisionist Westerns of the preceding decade, films like Robert Altman’s McCabe And Mrs Miller and Arthur Penn’s The Missouri Breaks and I developed a great passion – one that abides – for Terence Malick’s sublime ‘70s neo-Westerns, Badlands and Days Of Heaven.

By the time I was attempting to write fiction in a serious way, in the 1990s, my interest in the genre had streamed into its literary expression, or more precisely into the novels of Cormac McCarthy. With books like The Crossing and Blood Meridian, he seemed to have rescued the Western as a valid literary genre – I think he was the writer who made it possible to even consider writing a Western in the 21st century. He showed there was life in the game still and I think any good Western written now should at least tip its Stetson respectfully towards his work. Of course, he also had the unfortunate effect of making young men in Cork city in the 1990s want to write stories with wolves in them but I got past that.

After abandoning my own first effort at the Butte, Montana novel, I proceeded to write six other books – three novels and three story collections – but Westerns were always somehow on my mind. My first published novel, City Of Bohane, was set in a gang-dominated Irish city of the 2050s, but it is, in all essentials, a Western. When the glorious TV show Deadwood began to stream, unfurling the immortally profane dialogue of its genius-level creator David Milch, I was drawn back in again. 

So would I have another go? I wasn’t sure. Maybe there were enough Westerns out there already. It could even be said that the Irish Western – I am tempted sorely here to dub it the Potato Western – was by no means unworked ground. Sebastian Barry had written a couple of terrific efforts; Joseph O’Connor and Paul Lynch had edged towards the territory in their earlier work. Internationally, a book as fine as Patrick deWitt’s beautifully-done The Sisters Brothers had appeared. Did I need to add to the pile?

Late in the pandemic, in the October of 2021, I was walking through the woods on the Brieklieve Mountains where I live in County Sligo when I suddenly realised that if you’re alone in the woods, you’re in a Western – all you need is a bit of imagination. And then at once my characters appeared. I knew they were runaway lovers, I knew they were called Tom and Polly, and I knew I could tune into their conversation at will. And I knew with a lovely sense of certainty that their adventure was about to begin in Butte, Montana, in 1891.

Sometimes writing is like this. Sometimes it’s a very, very slow game and you’ve just got to give the story time to show itself. And now, a quarter of a century on from that room at the Capri Motel, my Butte, Montana novel is finally ready to meet its readers.

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